Facebook’s efforts to curb QAnon and anti-vax conspiracies are too little, and much too late

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Michael Marshallhttp://goodthinkingsociety.org/
Michael Marshall is the project director of the Good Thinking Society and president of the Merseyside Skeptics Society. He is the co-host of the long-running Skeptics with a K podcast, interviews proponents of pseudoscience on the Be Reasonable podcast, has given skeptical talks all around the world, and has lectured at several universities on the role of PR in the media. He has been the Editor of The Skeptic since August 2020.

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There’s been much critique of social media giants and the influence their platforms have on discourse, democracy, and public health – and with good reason. While some of the claims about Facebook’s ability to microtarget users in order to wholly sway election may turn out to be a little overstated, it is hard to deny that tech platforms’ drive for engagement has inadvertently amplified conspiracy theory, health misinformation and maliciously-designed fake news.

In response to the criticism, companies now direct users and journalists to the efforts they are making to limit the spread of misinformation and disinformation: earlier this month Facebook and its subsidiary Instagram banned “any groups, pages or Instagram accounts that “represent” QAnon”; last week, Facebook overturned a long-standing policy to announce that holocaust denial will no longer be welcome on their platform, with Twitter swiftly following suit; and most recently Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook will no longer display advertising that discourages vaccination.

These changes are doubtlessly welcome, but it’s hard not to look at these policy shifts and to wonder: what took them so long? How long was Facebook accepting payment to display adverts that spread false information about the safety and efficacy of vaccines? How recently did they realise the adverts they were paid to show could be persuading people that vaccines were unsafe? These feel like pretty important questions.

While these new policies will go some way towards addressing the spread of misinformation, few who have followed these issues will believe the measures to be sufficient. Take, for instance, the ‘ban’ on anti-vax misinformation: it applies only to paid advertising, but not to any other form of anti-vax content on Facebook. Adverts which explicitly discourage vaccination would be non-compliant with the Committee of Advertising Practice Code, the set of rules which govern advertising claims in the UK. If Facebook was serving anti-vax ads to UK users, they would already have been in breach of these regulations.

More importantly, in practical terms, it’s hard to see that this policy change will have any appreciable impact at all, because the overwhelming majority of anti-vax content spread on Facebook is done via groups, shared posts and pages – not through paid advertising. Facebook’s updated vaccine policy wouldn’t stop, for example, this post from being shared:

A Facebook link share on 10th July by HomeopathyOnline - the link is to a website called CovidWatching.org and is titled "Flue vaccine increases the risk of COVID19 - research" with an excerpt that reads "Discussion has already started about this year's flu season - what you should know about flu and COVID19".

Nor would it stop this, from a member of the Society of Homeopaths:

The post reads:
"Ok so here's the thing: viruses are always with us. The way to deal with the is to raise your level of health so they have little or no effect. The way to do that is to: i) eat well (ie not processed, polluted or pesticided) ii) drink well (clean water I mean ;)) iii) sleep well (that's when we heal and regenerate) iV) think well (that means NO 24hr rolling news!) v) exercise well (getting enough sunlight on your skin and vi) just say no to drugs (pharmaceutical ones that is!). If you are not doing this stuff it is likely that you will be more susceptible to viruses, allergens, pathogens etc. So what do you want to do about it? CV19 is here to teach us! If we think we will get well by i) eating denatured food, ii) drinking only tea, coffee and alcohol, iii) staying indoors, iv) being frightened, v) not exercising or being in sunlight and fresh air, vi) taking paracetamol whenever we feel we are getting ill and getting every vaccine going...then we will become much more susceptible to viruses, influenzas, infections and so on. This is what the CV19 and all our acute illnesses teach us. If we disregard their teaching we make ourselves extra susceptible to chronic illness....or death. It's our choice. It's our responsibility. It's our life. Love life. Choose love. Choose Homeopathy (and/or ayurveda, acupuncture, cranial osetopathy, herbalism, chiropractic etc etc) Love Health. Love your viruses. Respect your immune system. x"

The post has 274 reactions, 43 comments and 79 shares.

Or this, sharing an article from a website that has repeatedly published anti-vaccine misinformation:

A user shares a link on 10th July to an article from Junk Science asking "would you have this vaccine?". The comments say "interesting article. A No for me ! The best way forward I believe is keeping our immune systems strong. Both husband & I had the virus in March. I had it for 10 days but my husband had it & then pneumonia. He was v ill for 10 wks. He had suffered a stroke just 3 wks previously & was already struggling..", "not with abysmal stats like that." and "I don't think so. have 3 immune system issues, over 80, not taking unnecessary risks..."

In the comments, multiple users explain that they have health complications that leave their immune system comprised and put them in an at-risk population, yet they believe the risks of vaccination outweigh the very real risks posed to them by COVID-19. This is the coalface of the damage anti-vax misinformation can do.

Because none of these posts – or the thousands like them on personal feeds, in public and private groups, and in comments on pages – are paid advertising, none of them would be affected by Facebook’s new ban. Facebook has suggested that these kind of misleading claims would be picked up by other policies they have introduced to curtail the spread of vaccine misinformation, but these were just the first examples I found when I went to look, and no such counter-measures had been deployed.

Facebook’s ban on QAnon content, too, is less impressive upon inspection. While the platform will remove accounts that “represent” QAnon, this will only apply to “groups, pages or Instagram accounts whose names or descriptions suggest that they are dedicated to the QAnon movement”. Crucially, this would not limit the spread of posts containing QAnon conspiracies shared by people from their personal accounts, or from groups and pages that are dedicated to other pseudoscientific topics – including other conspiracy theories, alternative medicine beliefs, fake cancer ‘cures’ and even the anti-vaccination movement.

This is a genuine problem, especially given the rise of “Pastel QAnon” – a term QAnon researcher Marc-André Argentino coined to refer to QAnon believers who are “lifestyle influencers, mommy pages, fitness pages, diet pages, and [have] alternative healing” accounts. Pastel QAnon launders QAnon messages and narratives into the timelines of people who signed up to see content in or adjacent to the health and wellbeing spaces, but without explicitly labelling those messages as part of the QAnon movement. Their posts normalise terms like “the storm” and “the great awakening” – terms I’ve even seen appearing on the Facebook feeds of my own family, who I don’t imagine for a moment understand these terms are signifiers of a conspiracy theory that believes a shadowy cabal of satanic paedophiles are soon to be brought to justice by Donald Trump.

Pastel QAnon, along with movements like “Save Our Children”, have allowed the conspiracy theory to jump streams and enter wider discourse, divorced of the explicit signs of the origin of these ideas.

An instagram post - a pink background with the words "Key terms in your journey down the rabbit hole" with the caption "in the previous post, a few must watch videos were recommended. In those videos you might hear some top key terms repeatedly. Here's a breakdown list of some of those top key terms that you will need to understand in your journey down the rabbit hole. SWIPE. There is an emoji of a white rabbit. The hashtags include #FollowTheWhiteRabbit #WhiteHat #QAMon #Plandemic2020 #DefundHollywood #TheFallOfCabal #DownTheRabbitHole #WakeUpAmerica #SaveOurChildren #WakeUp2020 #GodFirst #kek #MAGA #Trump2020 #TruthSeekers #OutOfShadows.

The adoption by QAnon believers of “Save Our Children” as a slogan and rallying cry seems tailor-made (possibly deliberately so) to appeal to the communities who make up Pastel QAnon, and to offer the movement plausible deniability. After all, who could argue with the goal of saving children… as long as you aren’t forced to explain that the thing you’re saving the children from is a Satanic paedophile cult of senior politicians and international celebrities based on a blood libel that is nakedly anti-Semitic.

This cover is so successful that even mainstream publications like the Mirror and the Mail Online last month failed to spot they were being used as a vehicle for “Save Our Children” activists to spread paranoia about alleged paedophilia.

Article from The Mirror with the headline "Mum accuses Asda of seling kids' t-shirts with slogan 'promoting paedophilia'" The subheading reads "Kiki Marriott, a mum and Save our Children activist, has slammed Asda for selling a t-shirt for children with a message she says promotes paedophilia as a sexual orientation"

Given the rise of Pastel QAnon and the penetration of the conspiracy theory into the wellness movement, the flaws in Facebook’s efforts to tackle either anti-vax or QAnon posts unfortunately have a compounding effect: the accounts that promote misleading and scaremongering information regarding vaccines are the same ones now at risk of promoting entry-level QAnon content. Failure to tackle one of these issues is a failure to tackle the other.

This is a problem for which Facebook must shoulder some degree of responsibility: their role in the growth of QAnon goes beyond merely failing to arrest its spread. As the Guardian found out in an investigation in June, Facebook’s recommendation algorithm has actively been promoting QAnon groups to users who may not otherwise have been exposed to them:

“The Guardian did not initially go looking for QAnon content on Facebook. Instead, Facebook’s algorithms recommended a QAnon group to a Guardian reporter’s account after it had joined pro-Trump, anti-vaccine and anti-lockdown Facebook groups. The list of more than 100 QAnon groups and accounts was then generated by following Facebook’s recommendation algorithms and using simple keyword searches.”

The promotion of groups is significant, given that in early 2018 Facebook announced it had changed its algorithms away from promoting “relevant content” and toward “meaningful social interactions” – the upshot of which was that Pages would be de-emphasised, whereas content from Groups would be promoted:

The first changes you’ll see will be in News Feed, where you can expect to see more from your friends, family and groups. As we roll this out, you’ll see less public content like posts from businesses, brands, and media.

With content from groups fed more actively into people’s feeds, and groups with high engagement (likes, posts and comments) emphasised, it is little surprise that Facebook’s algorithm flagged QAnon groups as worthy of recommendation; I can think of few better sources of engagement than confused conspiracy theorists franticly competing to read meaning into the cryptic, opaque and nonsensical pronouncements of a supposed online whistleblower.

The QAnon genie is well and truly out of the bottle, proliferating far beyond the message boards it originated on, and far beyond the accounts and groups who spread it explicitly. Whether they like it or not, Facebook has been more culpable than any other platform in provoking and promoting the spread of this belief, and the steps they are proposing to fix it are wholly inadequate. This is, in part, their mess, and they need to be serious about cleaning it up.

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